The coffee shop that Vanessa Hudgens has picked to meet in is jammed: wall-to-wall girls scarfing down French fries, red-velvet cake, and giant coffee drinks with extra whip. The holidays are approaching, and everyone seems to be eating their feelings, looking for clarity in the calories, finding solace in the buttercream. Outside, here in Los Angeles, it's been raining for days. Mud is sliding. Vanessa and Zac just broke up.
Zac—in case you slept through the first decade of this century—is Zac Efron, and up until now, Vanessa Hudgens, his costar in three Disney High School Musical movies, has been best known as his girlfriend. Since the two split, Hudgens has been spotted around town, looking both liberated and insane, wearing a sheer black slip dress, brown thigh-highs, and a head covering, complete with ears, reminiscent of an Ewok pelt. "Furry things are my favorite," she says. She has shown up today in a far less dramatic fur hat, black tights with a cross running up each leg, and a see-through shirt that looks like a collaboration between Snuggie and Victoria's Secret. She orders a rice-milk chai latte and skips the desserts—she just likes to be near the sweets. "I gain weight really easily," she says.
Sitting in front of a chubby stone Cupid, Hudgens is close to her base: those sugar-shocked almost-adults who fell hard for her Mouse-manufactured innocence and, even after two separate nude-photo scandals, continue to see her as the equivalent of a singing cartoon deer. For Hudgens, this perception isn't necessarily a bad thing. It has allowed her some room to breathe. While her fellow Disney matriculants struggle to squirm out from under Mickey's long shadow—Demi Lovato went to rehab, Miley Cyrus is hitting a bong, even Zac Efron looks a little bar-mitzvah-awkward as he tries to transform himself into a leading man—Hudgens, now 22, has instead internalized the strict and soapy image-control politics impressed upon her by the studio of youth. We mostly know her only from movies. And face-wash ads. And paparazzi shots of lots of hand-holding. Symbolically—save for the occasional salacious Google search return—it's as if her virginity is still intact.
Hudgens props her feet up on an adjacent potted plant, takes her feet down, kicks them up again. She runs her hand through her long black hair, pokes at the wad of blue gum she's affixed to the lid of her coffee cup. She raps her silver fingernails on her iPhone, then throws her arms in the air, retracts her shoulder blades, stretches, and grunts. Excessive fidgeting usually betrays some pathology. "I'm not nervous," she says. "I'm excited. I get excited. I'm, like, a very hyper, energetic, crazy type of crazy. I have a lot going on. Always. I'll dance on a table sober."
Which is exactly the kind of reasonably burlesque thing Hudgens is doing in this month's Sucker Punch, a Zack Snyder film about five female inmates escaping from an asylum that mashes up The Lord of the Rings, Showgirls, and Girl, Interrupted—meaning we get a lot of crazy chicks wielding phallic weaponry and fighting dragons. "We trained with Navy Seals," says Hudgens, who stands five feet four and weighs (I'm guessing) 100 pounds soaking wet. "We were machines. You could not fuck with us. We'd all go running around Vancouver, where we filmed, to restaurants and bars and karaoke, like we owned it. We'd intentionally cruise back alleys, knowing that if anything did happen, we'd be all right. Taking the safest way home at that point was just boring."
More recently, Hudgens has been filming the sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth in Hawaii, improbably bonding with Michael Caine. "He's uh-mazing," Hudgens says, habitually stretching that one word into two. "Not only is he uh-mazingly, stupidly talented, but he still kind of hits on me. All the time. If it was anybody else, I'd be like, 'Who the hell do you think you are?' But because it's Michael Caine, I'm like, 'Sock it to me more, baby, come on!' Throughout this whole movie we're trudging through the jungle. So, of course, we're sweating. I can't tell you how much time is spent putting oil on my chest. And Evian. Spraying Evian bottles on my chest and my arms and my forehead, but mostly my chest. Just to look like I'm sweating. But your boobs don't really sweat, cleavage doesn't sweat. So it's kind of funny. But Michael's always telling the makeup artists that he'll take over and do it. I. Frickin'. Love. Him."
Asking Hudgens about Efron yields a less detailed response. The way she delivers those nice-girl-just-got-hit-by-a-truck, post-breakup lines—"We're still friends," "Who knows what the future will bring," "We're figuring things out"—makes her sound like all the rest of the cake-eaters in here: hurt but hopeful. The difference is, Hudgens, with her Disney boot-camp training, knows there are better uses for this interview than to treat it like a slumber party (maybe she also knows more than she's saying; reportedly, she'll be dancing and making out with Zac in an L.A. nightclub in three weeks' time). Regardless, she'd rather talk now about the kinds of fully developed men who can help her career—not by dating or breaking up with her, but by putting her in more non-G-rated movies.
"After the Oscars we were at Madonna's party. Quentin Tarantino was there, and I was talking to him for a while, probably after a few drinks, and I told him, 'We've gotta do something together.' And he was like, 'I would love to. That would be really great.' So it's been put out there," Hudgens says. "Slowly, I've gained balls. I used to be very shy."
Despite several overtures, Hudgens refuses to share a cookie; she craves a favorite California Cabernet instead, but she'll have to seek it elsewhere. "Nothing has happened with Tarantino yet," she says. "But I definitely tried to plant my seed. Hopefully he won't look back and think, 'Oh my God. That crazy bitch.' "